Requiem for neutrality


There’s no such thing as being ‘completely neutral’


There’s this position that is very fashionable in atheistic circles these days. It was probably there all along; but because it appeals to notions of child protection and basic human rights as opposed to any metaphysical arguments in its favour, it has gained much currency in this age of political-correctness. It goes something like this: Children should not be told anything about religion or God until they are old enough to decide for themselves. This sort of indoctrination damages them permanently and is therefore a form of child abuse, or so the theory goes.

As is typical of slogans that masquerade as deep philosophy, this one lacks substance. Like most simplistic philosophies that are meant to change the world for the better, it suffers from the limitation of not being carefully thought through. The worst-case scenario is that it’s downright dishonest and insincere. Because, by the same token children should not be vaccinated either (as some people believe they shouldn’t) until they come of age. Also, they shouldn’t be sent to school until they are old enough to decide whether they want to, and which school at that. Should they be fed meat and eggs? Who’s to say they won’t grow up to want to become vegan or vegetarian? The list goes on. The Canadian couple that had resolved to raise their child genderless until it decided what gender it identified as, or the British mom who advocated asking permission of the child before changing its diaper may have sounded silly to many, but at least they were aiming to be consistent in their liberalism. The same can’t be said of too many advocates of the above theory, who are much more arbitrary in picking and choosing.

This philosophy is often made to sound very deep by employing impressive vocabulary. Everybody is born in a ‘default state’ (one is informed), which should be preserved till the child comes of age and decides to do something about it. Here, one is again tempted to ask where exactly that default position stands on vaccination, schooling, and animal products (to name three). (Unless, of course, one declares one’s own state as the default one, as is very tempting to do.) If there’s indeed a default human state at birth, one could equally argue that it’s theistic rather than atheistic or agnostic. It’s yet to be established either way, and whether we can ever find out conclusively is doubtful. In the meanwhile, life goes on and one must live it according to one’s best beliefs at any given time.

Now one’s belief system, whatever it is, of necessity affects one’s children. That’s what being a parent is. This is not to say that parents can’t err in their judgment. Anybody can be wrong, although it’s unlikely that a truly sincere person will stay wrong all his life. But that debate isn’t relevant to the topic at hand. For the whole point of imaan (belief) is that one ought to be able to give an account of one’s beliefs, or it’s merely self-hypnosis. That one inherited a belief from one’s father (and the father from his father in turn) is simply not good enough. The Quran, on multiple occasions, mentions groups of people who, when asked about the rationale behind their certain beliefs, responded that that was what they found their ancestors believing. It points out (and it’s a recurring theme in the Quran) that that’s not a valid reason at all. One must have better reasons to have one’s beliefs, whatever they are and whatever the details of one’s birth and upbringing.

The problem with humanism and other impressively-sounding philosophies goes much deeper than what to tell and what not to tell children

Children are dependent on their parents in many more ways than just physically and financially. The point is to grow up and subject one’s inherited beliefs to the test, changing them if the situation so warrants. Gary Miller narrates an interesting anecdote in this regard. A few years after his conversion to Islam he happened to travel to Egypt on a speaking engagement. The man who had turned up at the airport to escort him to his hotel asked him how long he had been a Muslim. Ten years, he replied. ‘Oh, longer than me,’ came the reply, from a man of forty, a ‘born’ Muslim who had presumably been praying since the age of seven! A time comes in the life of a thoughtful and sincere man when he realises that what he has been professing all these years is indeed true. That’s when one becomes a true Muslim (or a true Christian, etc). A father can be a help in such matters (or not), but this is one journey one must undertake on one’s own steam. It’s very easy to ‘officially’ belong to a creed all one’s life without ever really subjecting it to scrutiny.

The problem with humanism and other impressively-sounding philosophies goes much deeper than what to tell and what not to tell children. Atheists are guilty of insinuating (often explicitly claiming) that they are more rational than the theists because their world view doesn’t depend on something (a deity) that can’t be proved. They also take great pride in claiming that they start from neutral ground (claiming nothing) and build upon it according to available evidence. This is not borne out by facts. The truth is that while the theist (at least in theory) builds a life-philosophy such that it conforms to the Will of the Creator of the universe, the atheist starts from some other guiding principle: be it the greatest good of the maximum number of people or human happiness or material comfort or bodily pleasure or scientific knowledge or what not (all of which are philosophical axioms). Which of these is superior is largely a matter of beauty lying in the eye of the beholder; but let’s stop pretending that there’s anything objective about the atheist’s life-philosophy over and above that of the theist’s; or that it’s better ‘grounded’ in any way. It’s every bit a positive starting point, and there’s nothing ‘neutral’ about it by any stretch of the imagination.